Numbers matter. Yes, the game is played out on the field — not on paper — but a quick look at the statistical profile of a team can show tendencies, strengths and weaknesses that shine some light on what can be expected when the teams take the field. This series is an examination of how the Broncos can gain an advantage against their opponent from a statistical perspective.
Here are the numbers that matter in this Week 17 matchup against the Chargers.
2.8 and 2.3
When the Broncos paid the Chargers a visit earlier this season, they came in as significant underdogs at 3-6 and having lost two straight games. When they left StubHub Center, though, they had pulled off a 23-22 victory thanks in large part to two key turnovers. A second-quarter Chris Harris Jr. interception set the Broncos up with good field position, and even though the offense didn't cash in from there, it did later in the game when a Von Miller interception led to an eventual Royce Freeman touchdown.
Denver could complete the season sweep of the Chargers if Sunday's game follows a similar script. In wins, the Broncos have averaged 2.8 turnovers forced. In the Broncos' nine losses, though, they have forced just seven turnovers combined.
One of the best ways to limit a good offense like the Chargers', it seems, is to prevent it from staying on the field. That's what the Ravens did in a 23-10 victory over the Bolts last week. They forced three turnovers — two Philip Rivers interceptions and an Antonio Gates fumble that was recovered and returned for a touchdown by Baltimore cornerback Tavon Young.
The Chargers are generally very careful with the ball: Their 15 giveaways are tied for third fewest in the NFL. But opponents have been able to take advantage on the rare occasions that they do struggle with turnovers. In the Chargers' four losses this season, they've averaged 2.3 giveaways. In their 11 wins, they have only turned it over six times. On Sunday, a turnover or two could provide the momentum needed to pull off another upset of the playoff-bound Chargers.
In the Broncos' six wins this season, they have allowed just 84.3 rushing yards per contest. The stingy defense came against some of the league's best runners, such as James Conner, Joe Mixon and David Johnson, too. In the last Broncos-Chargers contest, Los Angeles ran for just 95 yards, and Melvin Gordon averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, his fourth-lowest mark this season.
"They executed a little better than we did the last time we played them, especially in the run game," Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said Wednesday. "At the time, we were one of the top two teams in the league in that category. We're in the top five now. But they did a good job with it."
In the last two games, though, the Broncos' run defense hasn't been up to its normal standard, allowing the Browns to rush for 134 yards two weeks ago and the Raiders to rush for 114 yards — including 72 in the second half — last week.
"As a defense it felt like the more the game went on, we started to wither away," Todd Davis said.
In losses, the Broncos have allowed 143.4 rushing yards per game. Some of that is dictated by game flow: If opponents can establish an early lead, they can run the ball to maintain control of the time of possession battle and limit chances for a possible Denver comeback.
Still, the Broncos have the chance to bounce back and finish the season on a high note against a division rival at Broncos Stadium at Mile High. The Chargers ran for just 51 yards last week against the Ravens and have failed to surpass 100 yards on the ground in three of their last four contests.
Though the Broncos' offense has struggled in recent weeks, it has been very good in the red zone. Denver has scored on five of its six red-zone opportunities over the past three weeks. Only Indianapolis has a better red-zone touchdown percentage than the Broncos' 83.3 percent over that span.
Overall, Denver still sits just 14th in the NFL with a 59.5 percent red-zone touchdown percentage this season, but the last few games have shown the offense is trending in the right direction inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
Continuing that progress in the season finale could help the Broncos keep pace with a Chargers offense that is fifth in the NFL in scoring.
"This week we've got to score points," Case Keenum said Wednesday. "This is a very talented offense, and we've got to stay on the field. [We need to] put together some drives, because that's going to be really key, to score more than 19 points. We need to put some more points on the board."
331.3 and 21.3
Much has been made of the Chargers' star-studded offense led by Rivers, Gordon and Keenan Allen. But one of the underappreciated keys to the Chargers' 11-4 record has been a rock-solid defense that ranks eighth in yards allowed (331.3) and tied for eighth in points allowed (21.3).
It's also a unit that's only gotten better since the return of 2017 Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa. Since Bosa's Week 11 return, the Chargers are allowing just 293.3 yards per game. His return has also allowed the playmakers around him to excel, particularly two-time Pro Bowler Melvin Ingram.
"Joey's getting better every week," Lynn said. "We knew it was going to take some time for him to catch up, and he's catching up. It definitely helps Melvin on the other side. [It's] just freeing him up some to have more opportunities to go one-on-one [against] tackles. … Having one of your better defensive players back, that definitely cannot hurt."
As Keenum mentioned, keeping drives going and giving the defense time to rest will be a key on Sunday. Against a very good Los Angeles defense, though, that won't be an easy task.